Monday, 20 February 2012
a wretch like me
When I was a little girl, I was scared of everything: thunder, snakes, math, mice, the laughter of other kids when I turned my back, the dark outside, the dark inside me, sleeping, waking, shouting, silence, burglars, vampires, latex balloons, and most of all hell. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin Roosevelt, who had never been to a Baptist church apparently. There were lambs at church, lots of lambs. And other fuzzy animals, two-by-two. There were superheroes like Moses, who parted a whole sea. And villains like Judas, who sold his best friend for thirty pieces of silver. And there was Jesus, of course, who loved children even more than lambs. But mostly there was hell.
I was born believing I was a fuck-up, that everything terrible within my vicinity was precisely my fault, from my crossed left eye to my mother's tears to my parents' fights to the tractor-trailer crash on the railroad tracks on Old Bogdon Road. So when my kindergarten Sunday School teacher said I was separated from God because of my own sinful nature, I said, "Well, obviously."
But here was a solution: Confess my shame to my Heavenly Father; then, walk down the aisle on a Sunday morning and ask the preacher to ask Jesus to live inside my heart, to keep me safe from hell.
Oh, I prayed! For years and years, every night I prayed: God, I know I am bad and I don't deserve your love, but please don't let me die until I can be brave enough to get down that aisle. God, please, I don't want to go to hell.
I was five when I started praying it. I was twelve when I walked down the aisle. Seven years of Sundays gripping the back of a wooden pew, white-knuckled and singing, Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling. Calling oh, sinner, come home!
For another decade and a half, I let the church tie in me in knots, teaching orthodoxy over virtue, obedience over love. It was bad enough that I was human, falling from grace simply by being born. But I deserved worse because I was a woman. And worse even still for being a woman without a husband. I sat through sermons condemning my gender, my political leanings, my belief in social progress, my dreams, my hopes, my very (queer) biology, my (studied) understanding of the Bible.
And then one day I left.
I left church.
I got up and I walked out.
And my life got so much better.
A birthday or two ago, an old friend from so many years of so many sermons sent me a Facebook message that simply said, "I'm sad." And when I asked why, her answer was that she'd Googled me and found out I'd come out as a gay lady. She continued on in her passive-aggressive vein for a while, and then I removed her from my friends list. It was my birthday, after all. I saw that friend last week, when I was out doing some shopping. Her voice, full of derision; her eyes, brimming with fury. It was as if she'd never stopped typing that Facebook message. But there was worry there too. Real worry. It was a fear I recognized because it was a fear I'd known. She saw, in me, a person headed for hell.
I wondered how long it had been since I'd seen her. Years, for sure. But more than years. How many books had I read since our last conversation? How many countries had I visited since we last sat beside each other through an invitation hymn? How many essays had I read on other religions, services had I attended in other languages, prayers had I uttered (finally!) full of freedom? Thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands maybe. She was standing there, forever the same. And I, alone, had changed.
When I was younger, I wish I'd known that hell wasn't a lake of fire, but a cage of dogma. I wish I'd known that evolution wasn't a scientific attack on religion, but my own personal chance to grow. I wish I'd known that I deserved to hope, and that I could be courageous enough to live inside that hope. I wish I'd known that I was good.
I know it now.
I once was lost, as they say. Blind — but now I see.
Posted by Heather Anne Hogan at 6:14 p.m.